The reunification between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate is one of the most significant events in recent Church history, with far-reaching consequences in the life of the Church Abroad. As a man who directly participated in these events, Mitred Archpriest Stefan Pavlenko has a unique and personal perspective to offer on the impact of the reunification on ecclesial life. Father Stefan is the rector of the Church of All Russian Saints in Burlingame, California and an alumnus of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville. He participated in the Fourth All-Diaspora Council when ROCOR resolved to unify with Moscow, and he was present at the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in Moscow in 2007. With 49 years of pastoral experience, he is one of the highest-ranking presbyters in the Western American Diocese of the Church Abroad. This interview was submitted to fulfill requirements for History and Identity of the Russian Church Abroad-723, a graduate class offered at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary. Leo Grabowski, who conducted this interview came to HTOS from Fr. Stephan’s parish.
Thank you very much for offering to talk with me and for offering your time. So, first, the way I understand it, one of ROCOR’s initial raisons d’etre was to preserve Russian Orthodoxy while the Church in Russia was oppressed by Bolshevism, so when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, how did ROCOR react?
Right. I would go a little bit earlier than 1991 and touch a spiritual date– that would be 1988. In 1988, the government was still communist, and the Church, which was still feeling a bit of its pressure, did have certain respites. A lot of gain was made by the Church in Russia to begin to wiggle out of the pressures that the communist government was exerting. The pressures remained almost to the 90s, but certain things were actually visible from outside. And then the Soviet flag was lowered over the buildings at the Red Square, and the tricolor went up. I think that that was one of the most joyous days for me, personally, because I saw, prior to that, the overthrow of communist governments in, for instance, Romania, where you could see people riding with the Romanian flag with a big hole in it because they were cutting out the symbols of communism on the flag and keeping their national flag. And here, the white, blue, and red flag, the historical flag of Russia, was raised. So, this was a wonderful and phenomenal day. One interesting little detail– the radio stations were calling different people and Russian priests, and they called me, and they said that they would be doing an interview over the phone to talk about what we felt that day. And my son– who was much younger than he is now– he was in the background and on the piano, and he started playing the Soviet anthem! [chuckles] And I’m going, you know, be quiet! Stop it! But in the end, what happened is they kept the music, and they changed the words to include God’s blessing and so on. So that wasn’t that bad. But then, yes, the initial change after the fall of communism: from the time of the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to practically that very day when communism was ended and the Soviet Union fell apart, no Church Abroad clergy were allowed to associate with, visit, or correspond with Moscow Patriarchate clergy. It was done in very, very rare cases, but it was frowned upon officially. And after that, they began to loosen the restrictions, and, in fact, in the end the directive was, “Please associate with local Moscow Patriarch clergy, please visit Russia,” and so on. Various clergy had visited Russia in the 60s and so on, but I didn’t. Finally, I got my official permission from Church authorities to visit Russia in 2002. That was already well into the time when we were allowed to do that. Meanwhile, with respect to the clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate (we knew of them from the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in San Francisco), we saw each other at the cemetery, kind of bowed and winked. There was an idea that things are getting softer, things are getting better, and these people aren’t just agents of the communist government to try to rule the Church or us or anything. So, it was beginning to soften up. The ice was cracking, the ice was melting. The big significant time was when Solzhenitsyn was let out of the Soviet Union. Many people met with him, and I had the honor of him coming to visit my parish in Vineland, NJ. I don’t remember exactly what year that was, but that was a big crack in the ice in terms of our relationship [with the Church in Russia]. His concern was [the fact that we] have three warring jurisdictions– he meant the Church Abroad, the Paris Exarchate, and the Moscow Patriarchate. [He would say,] “You guys have to get along and begin to heal the historical Russian Church,” and so on. He also was very concerned about the situation with Old Believers. Along the way, the mutual anathemas were retracted between Old Believers and the official Orthodox Church. Moscow Patriarchate and the Church Abroad did that at the same time.
When you visited Russia for the first time, what were your impressions of Church life there?
Well, it was very, very interesting, because for me, being Russian by blood, Russian-Ukrainian by blood, I was just thrilled by just being in these historical places, the churches, and everything like that. I actually got lost in Moscow, and as I was trying to find the residence where I was supposed to stay overnight, I walked into a couple of churches. I don’t remember which church it was, but this was already when, prior to the Great Lent, there are already Church services where prostrations are done with the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. I walked in, and I was overwhelmed by the fact that there were so many young people in church, at the service, and that they were doing the prostrations at the proper time. I saw how church was being conducted, and this was not a church that I was led by the nose to and shown, and said, “here, look at this, this is what we’re doing,” or anything like that. Later, when I was in the delegation (as a pilgrim, not as an active member of the delegation) with Vladyka Lavr– I think it was 2004 or 2005– we were taken about to various monasteries and churches for the services. I came up to Vladyka Lavr, and I said to him, “You know, I was lost and I walked into churches, and it was the same thing.” In other words, we weren’t being shown anything that Americans like to call the “Potemkin villages,” which, historically, is also fake news. What he showed the empress was for real. But anyways, that’s a different angle.
When did ROCOR’s hierarchy and clergy begin to seriously call for reconciliation?
I don’t know exactly within the meetings of the bishops, but when the All-Diaspora Council was called [in 2006], it was on the agenda to look into this question officially by the whole Church Abroad– bishops, priests, and laypeople. I was a member of that, also. I was very honored to be able to do one day’s meeting. On the agenda, there was the question of “Do we begin to seriously try to make reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate?” That question was answered unanimously, although the person who was taking count of the votes didn’t want to make it unanimous, I guess because he knew that there were certain clergy that didn’t attend, and therefore he wanted to make sure that this wasn’t recorded as unanimous. But the ones who didn’t attend didn’t vote. There was one particular person who later joined one of the many separate groups that fell away, and he became a bishop in that group– he was a delegate with the right to vote, and he didn’t come to any of the sessions. He came to the food, and he came to Church services, but he didn’t come to any sessions, and therefore his vote was nil. You can’t vote if you’re not in the meeting.
Obviously, you were in favor of the reconciliation, but I’m curious if your perspective evolved over time.
I was, like many other clergy, sort of in favor of a theoretical rapprochement, but I didn’t know that it was going to happen so quickly. When people showed doubt about actually doing it, I was probably among the weak doubters. I wasn’t an outspoken doubter, I was sort of quietly worried. There was a priest whose opinion was very, very important to me, and that was Fr. Vsevolod Drobot. I actually, not trusting my own sense on these matters, thought, “Well, if Fr. Vsevolod is going to be in opposition, it’s going to be very, very hard for me to reconcile within myself to just go for it.” But, very soberly, and very wisely, Fr. Vsevolod chose to follow Vladyka Lavr. Vladyka Lavr was sort of the central “hub” around which everyone finally agreed and followed. His spiritual leadership was the most important thing in the whole movement.
Was the reconciliation divisive in our parish?
I believe that it was actually divisive in very, very many parishes, not just mine. When it was going to actually be established, Fr. Peter and I were sent– I believe we actually only went to Seattle, here in the United States. We went to Seattle, and they had a parish meeting, and people were supposed to ask questions, and we were supposed to give answers. I was also assigned to go with Fr. George Larin to Europe, and we traveled to the various parishes, and it got a little bit testy there. Some of the parishes that we visited did separate from the Church Abroad at one or another time. Some of them have returned. We were supposed to have meetings, and one of the very traumatic moments for me was when we were in Belgium, in the Memorial Church for Tsar-Martyr Nicholas. We were supposed to go there, serve liturgy, and have one of those meetings. The priest there, who was under suspension from Bishop Ambrose of Europe, locked the church and wouldn’t let us in! And some of the members were actually gathered with us in front of the locked gates, and plans were made, and we actually called a locksmith to break the lock, but then, in the end, we retreated and decided to just go to the other parish there. We had liturgy and a meeting there. The people were more [favorably] inclined– we were welcomed by them. But for me, it was the first time that I came to serve liturgy and was locked out of the Church. And the people who sided with the priest who locked the door, they actually looked like Soviet enforcers! They were the ones keeping us out of the Church [laughs]. So it was kind of a reversal, mentally. These are people who are supposed to be against the Soviet manner, and yet they were using Soviet-style bullying to keep us away from the church. That was very strange. The people who wanted us to be there were very, very upset and very embarrassed that we weren’t allowed to serve. The thing is, we were sent at that time with the blessing and the decree of Metropolitan Vitaly to explain that these things were happening. At that time, Vladyka Vitaly was [advocating] against the people who were already coming out of the Church before the unification took place. That’s a whole other story that somebody can write about– what condition Metropolitan Vitaly was in when he was taken away from synod, and by whom. That is a different question. But at that time, we were in Europe with a written, printed ukaz from Metropolitan Vitaly to convince those people to listen to their ruling bishop and to listen to those sent by the metropolitan. And these people went against it then, still, at that early time. So, those were very difficult times. But in my own parish, which was your original question [laughs], I did lose about– I would say that it was creeping up towards about a tenth of the parish. And the people who left immediately went into various groups, not into one group. There was the Archbishop from Ukraine, Agathangel, not to be confused with the legal ruling bishop of Odessa of the Moscow Patriarchate, also Agathangel, but from that same area. And there was the one that Fr. Stefan [Sabelnik] went to. Fr. Gregory Petrenko went with Agathangel and Fr. Stefan Sabelnik went with the other one– I forgot what his name is. But it was a different bishop. Two different bishops, two different backgrounds, two different ideologies as far as their relationship to the understanding of the Russian Church and so on. And they warred. They warred among themselves. And I mention Fr. Stefan Sabelnik and Fr. Gregory Petrenko because they were all my classmates. We sat next to each other for five years, we listened to Fr. Michael Pomazansky, we listened to Fr. Serge Romberg, we listened to Fr. Constantine Zaitsev, we listened to all of the old guard professors, and we were all taught the same thing, and yet they came out with this really, really skewed look at the Church of our time and at Vladyka Lavr. Vladyka Lavr, by the way, and I always say this, he was born, baptized, nurtured, raised, ordained by the Church Abroad. He was baptized by Archbishop Vitaly Maximenko, one of the great hierarchs of the Church Abroad. He was nurtured and raised by Archimandrite Cyprian Pyzhov, the iconographer. He was ordained by Archbishop Averky Taushev, who was the abbot of the monastery and rector of the seminary. He was consecrated in the Synodal Cathedral of the Mother of God of the Sign, and every single day of his life was on the palm of the hand of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nobody could say, “We don’t know where he was educated,” and so on. This is the man that Fr. Stefan and Fr. Gregory turned against and didn’t trust– they trusted “clergy” from the Soviet Union. Nobody knows who raised them, who ordained them. Everything was based on their own word of mouth. So, this was a strange and painful thing to suffer: classmates who turned against Vladyka Lavr and the Church Abroad and who were in warring factions. There were seven or eight factions that evolved from this breakaway. It wasn’t a clean breakaway, [as if one group could say,] “Here we are, the real Church Abroad, and you guys who are the turncoats,” or whatever you want to call us. And yet they broke up into groups and it was very, very sad.
When you had parishioners who were scandalized by the prospect of reunification, how would you counsel them?
Believe it or not, none of them wanted counseling– all of them just left. A very painful one, and I don’t want to mention names, was an altar boy who basically grew up in my altar. He later became a priest in another breakaway group– this was Bishop Vladimir, who was under Metropolitan Vitaly when he was absconded out of the synod. He did not ask me one question, he did not consult me, he didn’t even have an argument with me. You know, you could come and say, “I spit on you because you did this!” He didn’t even do that! [laughs] He didn’t even spit on his old Church, they just left and he went on his way and so on. And that was extremely painful– it was almost like your child rejecting the Church.
I think we have time for one more question. Today, as always, there are difficulties in the Church, there are divisions. What lessons do you think we can draw from the reunification between Moscow and ROCOR, and how they might be able to help us overcome these divisions in the greater Church.
Well, I think that people really have to trust in the idea of the unity of the Church– there’s only one Orthodox Church. We’re not the Episcopalian Church, that has separate high, low, middle, and in between and all. The Church is the Church, and we have to hold onto the robe of Christ. One of the things that I used to tell people about jurisdictions– there’s one [image] that I don’t like, and that’s “The divisions don’t go up to heaven.” The one that I like most of all is that all the Orthodox Churches, we’re all in– not an ark, that’s the symbolic, iconographic picture. But my picture: we’re all in a big SUV. There’s people in the SUV fighting to sit shotgun, or to sit on the bench seat, or the seat by the video screen. But we’re all in the same car, and we’re all going in the same direction. So, those kinds of squabbles are like that. Of course, it’s very, very painful what Constantinople has been doing on various levels. And of course, the absolute biggest problem right now is that Constantinople has accepted into the Church clergy that were either never ordained, like the samosviatiy in Ukraine, or who were under official and legitimate sanction for breaking rules in the Church– that was Archimandrite Belya, who established a Slavic exarchate within the Greek Church here in America. These things are very, very painful, and everything. But I think that clergy from those Churches also feel difficulties with the things that their hierarchy is doing now. For instance, I went to venerate the hand of St. Nicholas, which was a very, very wonderful, spiritual experience. But as I was coming up through the people who were standing in the front of the Church, a young deacon came up to me, and he said, “Father, we love the Russian Church, we love you, and we suffer for the things that are happening.” So, this is again one of those things like the squabbling in the SUV. The SUV is going in the right direction, and this is like people being upset about people throwing food at each other in the SUV.
Thank you very much for your time and for your insight.